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Chesapeake Bay News

Archives: February 2011


From the Field: Pondering birds and birding (part two)

We're getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count here in the Chesapeake Bay region! The Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place Feb. 18-21, creates a real-time snapshot of where all the birds are across North America. Bay Program monitoring coordinator and expert backyard birder Peter Tango helps us get into the bird-counting spirit with his two-part blog series on birding at his home in Deale, Maryland. Read part one of his blog entry to get caught up with his story.

Fox sparrow photo courtesy Rick Leche/FlickrBack to our yard. Regardless of bird name concerns, we use a bird bath with a heater to keep fresh water open on even the coldest days. Fresh water is a precious resource when it’s freezing cold and you are surrounded by salt water. This little pool brings in gorgeous flocks of bluebirds, our resident mockingbird, an occasional robin and small groups of spastic starlings – that can never seem to figure out if they want a bath, a drink, a walk in the water or a place to evacuate themselves. In the end they generally seem to do all of those things before quickly flying away. A squirrel even stops by for a drink sometimes. He’s the trouble maker, leaning on the heater to take a drink and sometimes popping it out of the water. Needless to say, the bird bath needs daily attention.

The transition from autumn to winter birds around the yard is magical. Ospreys leave, filtering south on northern breezes from late summer into autumn. The same breezes finally dive down out of the arctic and bring us wonderful flocks of northern-summering birds such as black ducks, hooded mergansers, then tundra swans. The “hoodies” mow through the creek, working together in search of small fish – the often abundant silversides and mummichogs of our shallow shoreline habitat. The tundra swans love to feed in the creek, sharing the water with mallards, the seasonal black ducks and the mixture of resident and migratory geese.

All that is fun to watch until the creek freezes over. Then it gets amusing as gulls, swans, ducks and geese track the thawing edge of the water daily. Some will inevitably sit upon the ice, seemingly waiting for it to thaw beneath them so they can get the best eats right there instead of where the crowds of birds are sharing the water. It’s kind of cute.

When the nasty weather hits, it usually gets really interesting at the feeders. Ground-feeding birds may be cut off from their food sources, forcing them to range out further from their typical hideaways. Twice I have encountered my favorite sparrow around our feeders: the chubby, rusty and gray, plump and cuddly fox sparrow. In the first case it was during the 12-20 inch storm that rocked Maryland in 1996; the second case was during 2010, when Maryland was buried under the blanket of three significant snowstorms. In each case, fox sparrows showed up at the home feeding station and for a few days and fed heavily on seed we provided. As the snow disappeared, so did the sparrows, presumably returning to their hideaways and preferred secluded dining spots.

Fox sparrows weren’t the only interesting visitors during those storms, though. We had an amazing diversity of sparrows at our feeders when feet of snow covered the Bay area. In a typical winter, we see good numbers of white-throated sparrows, and a token song sparrow or two around our feeding stations. During the storms last year, however, there were chipping sparrows, field sparrows, tree sparrows, white-throated sparrows and song sparrows along with the fox sparrows. The trick to identifying them is no trick at all, but rather being ready for likely but nonetheless surprising arrivals at the feeders. Studying bird guides (multiple guides if you have them)  for identification clues and tips helps when you look out the window and think something looks different.

A common error I hear is people looking at birds in their yards and saying, “Oh yes, we have tons of purple finches.” Chances are they are not purple finches, but rather the non-native house finches that are now common, hungry visitors at the feeder. Might you get purple finches? I look all the time. Last winter, again during the snowstorms, a single female purple finch stood out like a sore thumb among the house finches. The plumage patterns on the face are distinctly different in the two species. I was tickled inside to see the real deal.

Yet another surprise showed up last year during the storms. Among the grayish little birds that are picking at the thistle seed are goldfinches and female house finches. But then there appeared a goldfinch-like bird, except it had stripes on its flanks and belly. Ohhhhhhh yeah, I know this one. I use to spend time in the Adirondacks and Catskill Mountains of New York, and pine siskins are a bit more common there than here. During irruption years coupled with the bad weather, the birds may range farther south in greater numbers. And there outside the house was a pine siskin among the LGJs (little gray jobs) flitting and feeding. Shortly after the really cold weather hit this winter, pine siskins once again arrived at our feeders, vying with the goldfinches for their share of thistle seed. Growing up a good part of my life north of the Mason-Dixon line, I feel a sense of home from my youth when my familiar northern feathered friends visit me now in the south.

Pine siskin photo courtesy Cephas/Wikimedia CommonsUp north, where I grew up, I had little problem identifying big, black, crow-like birds. American (Common) crows ruled. When I went to Adirondacks, I had to contend with ravens versus crows. Not too tough for most birders, I would say. In Maryland, around the creek and therefore in the yard, there might be fish crows, there might be American crows. Looking at them is mostly useless; however, listen for their calls and presto! They give themselves away. There is the very nasal call of the fish crow contrasted against the deeper, more guttural call of the American crow. And when they don’t call? Call it “Crow sp.”  for “crow – species unknown.” It’s ok to be honest if we don’t know what some bird is and we do the best we can with the identification.

You probably don’t see as many crows as you used to either. When West Nile Virus was introduced into the U.S. in 1999, it swept across our country’s bird community.  American crow populations were severely affected by the virus and their numbers took a nose dive. Fish crow populations experienced a lesser but no less significant decline. Most people will remember hearing about dead birds here and there, maybe even encountered some themselves. It wasn’t just crows; it was robins, chickadees, titmice and more. The toll has been large. Why should you care? An introduced pathogen has changed the face of bird communities in our country in our lifetimes. Additionally, mosquitoes had fewer birds to feed on and we warm-blooded humans were a more frequent target.  The dead crows preceded and were an indicator of the human epidemic that followed from West Nile Virus. Birds died, but people died too.

Programs like the Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count, with their thousands of volunteers across the country, provide insight into bird community makeup, patterns of bird movements, changes in response to climate shifts, irruptions and species stability and declines. Up until this year, we commonly had small flocks of doves at our feeders. Sure, the overwintering Cooper’s hawk got one now and then. How amazing it can be to watch such a hawk take off from a couple of hundred yards away, gliding low almost skimming across the water, and taking dead aim at the bird feeding station for a potential meal. One day, however, the Cooper’s hawk landed right in front of a squirrel. The squirrel not only stood his ground to protect his food source, he chased the hawk! Cooper’s hawks are generally bigger than squirrels, mind you. Not only did he chase the hawk once, he chased it again until it flew onto a bush. Not satisfied with that result, he chased it completely out of the yard following behind it as it flew across the street. We called him ‘psycho squirrel.’

As for the doves, we have almost none this year. Not coincidently, we have been chasing not one but two neighborhood cats from our yard. The cats now seem to think our bird feeding station is a great part of their daily walk through the neighborhood. Aside from random flights into buildings, windows, cars, trucks and buses, untethered cats are a common issue because they kill thousands of birds each year. Feral cats have reduced or led to extinction of bird species, mammals and even lizards, specifically on islands. Restoration activities on islands across the globe now include efforts to eliminate feral cat populations in order to reintroduce native species that can’t survive the predatory pressure of the cats.  Since I haven’t seen more than a sharp-shinned hawk in the yard lately looking for a meal of junco or house finch, the two new cats prowling the neighborhood are the most significant negative change in predator-prey relationships around our area.

I have come to dearly love our town of Deale, its land, its water, its people. But over a decade ago, moving from my homeland of the north to my new homeland in the south, my body ached for spring flocks of warblers I was so accustomed to moving through the woodlands. Along the creekshore, migration is more subtle in some ways, more robust in others, and my senses have adapted and integrated with the new surroundings. As spring gets closer, the tundra swans will sound off more and more, day and night, night and day, they’ll  get all fired up into a frenzy and then…silence. They are on their way to their arctic summer home.  However, soon after the wing beats of the swans magic liftoff fade in the distance there will be the cries of osprey overhead. White-throated sparrows will bridge the divide, sometimes hanging on until the real warmth of season arrives.  Junco’s will go, and most black ducks will leave the creek, except for an occasional hen bird that gets romanced by the grunt-whistle of a male mallard and decides to raise its young here down south. Perhaps we have all been a bit romanced by the calls of the Bay and just can’t leave its shores now either.

(Fox sparrow photo courtesy Rick Leche / Flickr; pine siskin photo courtesy Cephas / Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Tango's avatar
About Peter Tango - Peter is the Monitoring Coordinator for the United States Geological Society at the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Keywords: birds, Maryland

Natural Resources Conservation Service partners with Bay Bank to fund habitat protection projects

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Maryland and Bay Bank, the Chesapeake Bay’s conservation marketplace, are working together to help agricultural operators and forest landowners implement conservation practices that will make them eligible to receive private funding to protect and enhance important habitats, forestland and clean water.

The partnership provides financial assistance for conservation practices that improve habitat conditions for critical species such as brook trout, bog turtles, Delmarva fox squirrels and Atlantic white cedar. Practices that benefit other habitats and water quality, including wetlands and forest buffers, are also eligible.

Bay Bank is a collaborative effort to increase the pace and scope of conservation across the Chesapeake region. Bay Bank integrates existing programs and policies and uses innovative, market-based solutions to support “ecosystem services” that people depend on. As participants implement their conservation practices, groups such as wastewater treatment plants and private foundations may purchase credits from their practices to meet their permits or organizational goals.

NRCS will provide assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Bay Bank will provide program participants with tools and support to help them engage in ecosystem markets.

To learn more about the program, contact NRCS at your local USDA service center or your local soil conservation district. Additional information can be found online at thebaybank.org. Applications are due May 1.


From the Field: Pondering birds and birding (part one)

We're getting ready for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count here in the Chesapeake Bay region! The Great Backyard Bird Count, taking place Feb. 18-21, creates a real-time snapshot of where all the birds are across North America. Bay Program monitoring coordinator and expert backyard birder Peter Tango helps us get into the bird-counting spirit with his two-part blog series on birding at his home in Deale, Maryland.

January 29th. 40 degrees. There are house finches singing and mourning doves flying by. A roadrunner is perched on a fence just a dozen yards away, preening in the morning sun. For the first time ever, I watch one make a really cool deep-toned call. On the ground below the roadrunner, green-tailed towhees feed. In another area, gila woodpeckers sound off. There is a bit of a surreal sight when a pair of cactus wrens go dumpster diving. There are plenty of saguaros around, but alas, the dumpster seems to be more attractive to them this morning.

Creek photo courtesy Jane Hawkey / IAN Image Library

I've taken a break from the snow and cold of our Chesapeake Bay area and landed in southern Arizona for a few days. There is a little sunshine, and the late spring-like temperatures are chilly by night and sometimes cozy, sometimes t-shirt weather by day. It’s a brief but invigorating reprieve from the incessant frosty weather and bulky clothes I’ve needed at home this winter.

Home is, after all, along the Bay, south of Annapolis, in a little house my wife and I call "The Loveshack" out on Carr's Creek. From a birding perspective, creekside living is wonderful because it is a transition zone. The woods and wetlands melt into shallow, protected coves. You can sit on the dock and hear rufous-sided towhees or Carolina wrens while looking out at a flock of ducks that may include a bufflehead visiting with the mallards. Flocks of geese move off the Bay into the creek shortly after sunrise, then lift off and head for their daily feed in the surrounding farm fields. They return at dusk, flying over our home and navigating down the gut of the creek back to the Bay for the night. It's a great rhythm of Bay life to be in tune with.

It's winter. It's cold. There's snow. The groundhog gave us his prognostication that we might see spring come early. Even with his message, winter will linger with us a bit longer and so will some of our favorite birds.

We love to watch our feeders and track the bird community through the year here in Deale. Feeders of thistle seed, another with a coarse seed mix of peanuts and sunflowers, and third safflower-only feeder cater to the likes of goldfinches, house finches, energetic chickadee pairs, noisy tufted titmouse duos, cardinal families, white-throated sparrows, and more. An occasional downy woodpecker stops to grab a seed, while generally only the male red-bellied woodpecker will come in and grab a nut.

My wife constantly feels that those who originally gave names to birds must have been drunk while doing it. Red-bellied woodpeckers, for example, have barely a wash of red on their bellies but wonderfully brilliant red plumage on their heads. "Why isn't it called a red-headed woodpecker?" she asks.

I seize on the opportunity to spin a story answering this question -- sort of – and start in…

"Well honey, a long, long time ago there was this guy, Linnaeus. He liked organizing things. So he decides to organize the plant and animal kingdom under one system."

"Kind of like Noah and the Ark, eh?"; she says.

I continue, "Yeah, kind of like that, without being limited to two of everything. OK, and for this organization effort, Linnaeus gives things names, Latin names."

So far my wife is on board. She knows botany, she knows Linnaeus. The hook is set, so I continue.

"Well, a couple of hundred years after Linnaeus, there are a couple of guys roaming the American countryside, also very interested in naming things. They were JJ and Rahg. That was how Roger Tory Petersen and John James Audubon referred to each other."

"Bingo!"; I said, "Yes. So you see, binoculars weren't particularly good back in the day, and these guys needed to see things up close. They collected birds to figure out what they were and decide on names.

"Not so good for the birds, eh?"; she says.

"Not so much." I replied. "Then, one day they come upon some birds clinging to the sides of the trees. JJ says to Rahg, "Rahg, you see those birds pecking away at the trees? Let's collect some of them today. We'll name them Dendrogapus or Picoides or something like that." Rahg replied, "I am so dang tired of these Latin names, let's give them some English names. They peck wood so let's call them wood peckers. Whaddya think?"

JJ asks, "Can we just combine that into one word, woodpecker?; Rahg replies,"Yes, woodpeckers. One word. Write that down."

And that's how they got to be named woodpeckers.

My wife is on the edge of her seat, intrigued. I move along in the story.

"OK, now it gets really interesting. You see, that night they got back to the campfire, sipped a little local shine together, and pulled out their collection of birds to continue naming them. JJ pulls out a bird and says, "Rahg, this one has a red head, let's call it a red-headed woodpecker." Rahg says, "JJ, that head is crimson-colored, it's not really red! You sure you want to call it a red-headed woodpecker?" JJ replies, "No one is going to want to say ‘crimson-colored,’ let’s keep it simple. It’s the red headed woodpecker’. Rahg gives in and writes ‘red-headed woodpecker’ in his book, adding a little drawing beside it as best he can in the firelight.

“JJ pulls out another bird. ‘Uh, Rahg, this one has a red head too and doesn’t look anything like the last one.’ Rahg perks up and says, ‘It’s a red nape, not a red head, JJ. No one knows what a nape is, though.’ Rahj takes another swig of ‘shine, grabs his magnifying glass and jumps up. ‘JJ, Come here! C’mere, c’mere, c’mere! LOOK! See those two specks of red on each of them belly feathers? We are going to call this the red-BELLIED woodpecker!’ JJ rolls his eyes, ‘Can’t we call it a cream-bellied ladderback woodpecker or gray-bellied zebra striped-backed woodpecker? I mean, look at this bird, no one will ever see them red flecks except with a magnifying glass.” Rahg sticks to his guns, ‘Nope, you named the last one, I got this one.’ And so red-bellied woodpecker went into the book, with a little drawing and some notes on those tiny belly flecks of red.’

My wife is silent, pondering the birds we see. I jump in and continue my tale.

“By now the bottle of ‘shine is gettin’ kinda low, and the boys are tired. But there’s one more bird in the bag. JJ pulls it out. “WOW, look at the size of that woodpecker! Oh NO, it has a red head too!” Rahg says. ‘Actually it’s a red cap, Rahg, kind of a red-capped woodpecker. I’m really tired of red-this and red-that. We got this one deep in the woods, right? What if we just keep it simple and call this one WOODY: woody woodpecker.’ Rahg has had enough for the night. ‘That will never stick as a name, JJ, but I’ll jot it down and we’ll think about it more tomorrow.“

“And that, my dear, is how the birding name game went back in the day. Honest.”

I end my story and hold my poker face.

She looks at me, gets that glare in her eyes and says, “Dude, you are SOOOOO full of ‘shinola yourself!” She throws a couch pillow at me, and we both cackle with laughter.

“OK, ok, ok – I guess I have some research to do about where those common names were derived. I’ll get back to you.”

There are many excellent bird guides out there now: National Geographic, Sibley, Petersen, Stokes and more, not to mention all the web resources available. And if anyone gets concerned about common names, by all means dive into the Latin names. That opens up a whole new world about birds. You won’t run into two birds with the same very confusing Latin names; they’re all confusing.

Check back next Tuesday, Feb. 15 for the second part of Peter's entry!

(Creek photo courtesy Jane Hawkey/IAN Image Library; red-bellied woodpecker photo courtesy Kurt Wagner/Flickr)


Peter Tango's avatar
About Peter Tango - Peter is the Monitoring Coordinator for the United States Geological Society at the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Keywords: birds, Maryland

Survey finds more baby oysters in Chesapeake Bay

The number of baby oysters in the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay is at its highest level since 1997, and more young oysters appears to be surviving the effects of diseases, according to a recently completed survey by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Since 1939, Maryland has monitored the status of the oyster population through annual field surveys. The surveys track three critical components of the oyster population: reproduction levels, disease infection levels and annual mortality rates.

The two-month 2010 fall population assessment covered 260 oyster bars and 399 samples throughout the Bay and its rivers. Scientists found 80 baby oysters (called spat) per bushel; about five times the 25-year average of 16.

The increased spat set is an immediate asset to Maryland’s expanded sanctuary program,” said DNR Fisheries Director Tom O.Connell. These protected oysters will grow and reproduce, contributing more oysters to the Bay's sanctuary and surrounding aquaculture and public fishery areas, and providing important ecological benefits such as water filtration and reef habitat.

Oyster spat were also widely distributed throughout the Bay and its rivers. While the largest amounts were in the lower Bay’s saltier waters, where reproduction is typically more successful, a moderate spatfall also occurred in fresher waters that generally have little to no spat sets. Some of these areas included the upper Bay as far north as Pooles Island and the upper reaches of the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers.

Additionally, the frequency and intensity of the oyster diseases MSX and Dermo remains low. Dermo remains below the long-term average for the eighth consecutive year, and MSX has fallen after a spike in 2009. Oyster survivorship, measured by the percentage of living oysters per sample, was 88 percent, the highest level since 1985 and more than double the 2002 level.

"These moderate levels of natural oyster mortalities during recent years may reflect increases in disease resistances among oysters and their progeny that survived the severe disease pressures of the 1999-2002 drought,"said Chris Dungan, manager of oyster disease research at the NOAA Oxford Lab.

Since 2000, DNR, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office and the University of Maryland have produced more than 2.5 billion oyster spat in hatcheries and planted then in Maryland waters. The partnership has also reclaimed thousands of acres of buried shells from derelict oyster reefs.

Visit Maryland DNR's website to view the full results of the oyster survey.

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